If you were in the habit of shopping in Adelaide department stores in the late Eighties or early Nineties, you might have come across a slightly-built, boyish-looking young man patrolling the aisles of the luggage department.
He was looking for bags big enough to transport some shoes back to his native country of Brazil. By ‘some shoes’ we mean 75 pairs: he was buying a pair of shoes for every member of his recently-established charitable foundation. His name was Ayrton Senna.
We are both lucky and unlucky in Australia when it comes to memories of the great Brazilian, who lost his life at the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, on May 1, 1994 – already 20 years ago.
Lucky, because we saw him win twice in Adelaide: when he triumphed in the shortest Grand Prix ever, the result declared after just 14 laps in 1991, and again in 1993. Unlucky, because that was the 41st and final win of his meteoric career, his last victory in the red and white of McLaren before he moved to fulfil a long-held ambition – to drive for Sir Frank Williams.
A new star was rising, by the name of Schumacher. All F1 fans waited breathlessly to see how the great Brazilian, at last in the car he had always wanted to drive, would cope with this new German phenomenon. Alas, just three races into his Williams career, Senna was killed at Imola’s Tamburello corner.
Ann Bradshaw worked closely with Senna, first of all when he was with the Lotus Renault team in the famous black and gold cars, and then when he moved to Williams, where she was press officer for Sir Frank.
“Ayrton and Frank had a very close friendship way before he joined the team for 1994,” Ann recalls.
“After all it was Frank who first gave him a test drive at Donington Park in 1983. They often spoke on the phone and I think it was more about their respective planes than motorsport!
“It was obvious, however, that they had been talking about the day when Ayrton actually was a Williams driver and I am sure for Frank this was the realisation of a dream. However, Frank is not an emotional person so it would be difficult to get him to talk about this and the impact Ayrton's death had on him. The fact there will always be the Senna double S on every Williams car to me shows how much he meant to Frank as a person and a driver.”
That’s where our headline comes from: as sharp-eyed fans in Melbourne would have spotted, in this anniversary year the Williams FW36 chassis carries an image of Senna and the dedication ‘Ayrton Senna Sempre’ – ‘Ayrton Senna Always’ on the left-hand side of the nose.
Ann had to cope with the media avalanche in the aftermath of that tragic Imola weekend.
“For me those events in 1994 are still like a dream,” she says. “However, Ayrton was a very special person and someone who I had witnessed changing over his time in Formula 1.
“I first worked with him in 1986 at Lotus and this was a much more intense Ayrton. He had yet to prove he was a world champion and so to him he still had a lot to achieve.
“However, he still loved a joke and also heading out to play with his remote control planes and helicopters when there was a break in testing. He once threw the controls at me when his plane was in the air. I then realised just how quick his reactions must be to control these 'toys' in the way he did.
“In 1994 he was a delight to have in the team. One of my strange memories was of the flight on the way back to the UK from the Pacific Grand Prix in Aida, Japan – where he had another DNF. He was up front and I was sitting with the well-respected engine-builder Brian Hart, with whom he had a very close friendship, in economy class.
“Suddenly Ayrton turned up and sat on the floor chatting with us for what seemed like hours. Although he was worrying about the car's performance he still found time for a chat – and it was not all about motorsport.”
On track, though, it most certainly was, and what we will also remember about Senna is 41 wins from 161 starts, and world titles in 1988, 1990 and 1991. Senna was also the pole position specialist of his era, amassing 65 of them, almost always in spectacular style.
Legendary team owner Ken Tyrrell always used to nudge this writer’s elbow as we stood on pit wall in the dying moments of qualifying when Senna came out on track and say, “Watch this!” with all the excitement of a schoolboy at his first race.
Yes, we shall also look back on those unhappy days when McLaren’s ‘Dream Team’ of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost fell apart in the bitter in-fighting that seems inevitable when two competitive animals are brought together.
But there are other, happier images: Ayrton shy and reluctant as he was dragged on-stage in a post-race concert by Tina Turner… Ayrton looking up at the present writer as he acted as interpreter in a French-language press conference and saying ‘Thank you’ every time his translator helped out… Ayrton revelling in the attention of Soichiro Honda, whose engines powered him to so many victories and who loved him like a son.
We will remember, too, the most charismatic individual in F1 since the late Gilles Villeneuve, the only one on four wheels to match the appeal of Rossi on two – an intelligent, humane individual whose focus on being the fastest of them all turned him into an altogether different person at the wheel of a racing car.
And one thing is certain: 20 years on and however long we watch and enjoy motor racing, we shall not forget him.
Ayrton Senna Sempre…
- Written by: Stuart Sykes